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Articles / Canada's History /2011 - 2012

Canada's History

(first published in Canada's History January 2011)

Shouldn’t a historian of Canada be thrilled? On a cold January weeknight in Toronto, I was in a swirling crowd some six hundred strong, and all of us had paid $25 to cram, standing room only, into the main hall of the Royal Ontario Museum for a Canadian history debate featuring such luminaries as Jack Granatstein and Michael Bliss, both fine historians and bold speakers.

The event was doubly special because it was the Royal Ontario. For the most part, the ROM doesn’t do Canada. Its historical collections are superb when it comes to classical Greece, Ming dynasty China, or renaissance Europe. But outside natural history, its Canadian materials are skimpy. Toronto does not have a museum of Toronto, a museum of Ontario, or a museum of Canada. We have the ROM instead.

In recent years, the ROM’s charismatic director William Thorsell (now retired) fought to assert his museum’s role as a vital element on the Toronto cultural landscape. And that brought Canadian questions into his sights. In September 2009, Thorsell presided over a ROM debate to mark the 250th anniversary of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. His curators complemented the event with displays of such treasures as Benjamin West’s great Death of Wolfe painting. The ROM may not have much Canadiana, but what it has is some of the best.

But the ROM’s Plains of Abraham debate hardly aspired to match its Plains of Abraham painting. On one side stood Parti Québécois warhorse Bernard Landry, who leavened his ranting about humiliation and oppression with nostrums about New France he must have picked up from the nuns in 1950s schoolrooms. For the other side, Jack Granatstein fulminated about Quebeckers’ ingratitude for all Canada has done for them. The history was mostly drivel, but the evening provided the ROM with the kind of buzz Thorsell craved -- and a full house, too. This winter, the ROM has come back with more history debates: a whole season that it has lavishly promoted under the title "History Wars."

But a Torontonian who takes the country’s past seriously may regret being drafted into these "History Wars." The ROM’s history-war debates are less about history than current controversies – abolishing the monarchy, attacking multiculturalism, reviewing Trudeau’s legacy – and half the debaters are not historians but prominent polemical journalists: David Frum, John Fraser, Haroon Siddiqui. C’est manifique, mais ce n’est pas l’histoire. It is hard to find a historian on the program under retirement age. Does the ROM not know of any new research or fresh perspectives from historians of Canada?

Finding my way into the hall, I could not help remembering how the ROM accompanied it recent, brilliant exhibition, "Terracotta Warriors," with many fine presentations by leading-edge scholars and artists of China. The ROM, indeed, has always offered lively and accessible lectures and performances by first-rate speakers and experts on everything from ancient civilizations to early 20th century couture.

But when the subject is the history of Canada, the ROM, one of Canada’s leading research museums, seems to veer unerringly from seriousness and sophistication to tabloid sensation. Even wit and taste have gone AWOL from the History Wars. "Louis Riel Deserved to Hang," the most "historical" of the topics in the series, seems almost intended to offend the still-marginalized Métis minority of Canada. If the ROM so needed to be provocative, wouldn’t "John A. Macdonald should be Convicted of Genocide" have been a bolder, fresher take on the same question?

As the room filled, I wondered if the ROM might be reflecting a widely-held attitude in its disdain for taking our history seriously. In recent years, we have seen huge and laudable efforts -- and considerable spending -- in the cause of strengthening Canada by teaching more history. But most of that effort is directed at schoolchildren. "Canadian history – it is so important for the kids," I often hear. And who can disagree? But sometimes it seems many Canadians suspect Canadian history is only for kids. What future has Canadian history if even the ROM, that great repository of research and sophistication and seriousness about our human inheritance, thinks the only way to talk to Canadian adults about Canadian history is through manufactured controversy and relentless presentism on obvious questions.

The January debate -- Michael Bliss and newspaperman John Fraser on the question of abolishing the monarchy -- indeed offered a lively spectacle. Monarchist Fraser mostly stuck to sentiment and jibes, but abolitionist Bliss’s constitutional conundrum had real sting: the governor-general, our practical head of state, is "a referee appointed by the home team," he argued, and one day that reality is going to bite us. It was a stimulating debate and provoked vigorous comments and questions. We six hundred got our money worth, sure.

But I walked down the Museum subway steps afterwards dreaming of what the mighty brains and resources of the Royal Ontario Museum could create if it occurred to them to offer that hungry audience some genuinely adult discussions on some genuinely historical questions about this country.

©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2011

(first published in Canada's History, March 2011)

In John A. Macdonald’s day, Canadians had no fear of coalition governments.

Before the first federal election in the summer of 1867, Macdonald persuaded several of the Reform politicians who had been key to the building of Confederation to stay within his big tent. Macdonald gleefully declared his Liberal-Conservative partnership was more plausible as a government than the remaining reformers – just a disgruntled rump, he liked to suggest. The voters agreed.

Across the world, such coalition-making is a natural part of parliamentary democracy. Whenever several parties emerge to represent the diverse interests that exist in most modern electorates, they divide up popular support. Then they have to make parliament work in a situation where no party dominates. Their solution? Formal or informal, temporary or longstanding, it’s often a coalition. From Westminster to Wellington and New Delhi to Berlin, coalition politics is where voters expect their representatives truly to demonstrate the skill and judgment that justifies them a place in parliament.

Stephen Harper surely knew he was talking nonsense when he insisted that only the party that "won" the election could form a government. Commentators easily exposed his distortion of parliamentary norms. But he was in touch with something important about Canada, for his bold claim spoke to a deep-rooted Canadian idea about how politics should work. In December 2009, when Stéphane Dion’s Liberals and Jack Layton’s New Democrats proposed to replace his government with one of their own, polls suggested that dismay was widespread among voters. "Form a government without us voting on it?" many Canadians responded. "That can’t be right."

The world gapes at our lack of parliamentary sophistication. But Canada's parliamentary system is one of the oldest in the world, and coalition politics used to be a familiar part of it. Why do Canadians alone in the parliamentary world now expect that the square pegs of minority parties can be jammed into the round holes of majority government? To put us so starkly at odds with the parliamentary traditions of the whole world, let alone our own origins, something must have changed in Canadian political history.

Well, one thing has, and it changed quite a long time ago. In 1919, William Lyon Mackenzie King became leader of the Liberal Party, not by the support of elected Liberal MPs, but by the vote of party members gathered in a convention centre. That kind of leadership selection process had never been tried in any parliamentary system before, but the other Canadian political parties soon followed suit. Ever since, Canada has been virtually the only country in the world where parliamentary party leaders are selected by whoever buys a vote in a private, outside-of-parliament popularity contest -- and are not accountable to the elected parliamentarians they lead.

With his Gollum-like cunning, Mackenzie King at once grasped the magical power he had been granted. Clutching his precious leadership, he had suddenly become immune to his MPs. He told the people's elected representatives he was no longer accountable to them; they had to do what he told them. Mr. Harper’s often-deplored practice of treating backbenchers and cabinet ministers as gofers and water boys is just the blossoming of the seed Mackenzie King planted. Under Canada’s new idea of party leadership, MPs became nobodies long before Pierre Trudeau was mean enough to say so.

What has this to do with coalitions? Well, everything. In real parliamentary systems, leadership tends to be diffused. There are usually several influential leaders in any parliamentary party. They head regional or ideological factions that jockey and negotiate for influence in and out of the legislature -- and sometimes bounce a leader, even an incumbent prime minister, right out of office, as happened in Australia last summer. In that context, it is not so hard to consider coalition partnerships – they are just another faction in the endless bargaining process that defines vigorous political parties representing the diversity of their supporters in parliament. Coalitions can work when parliaments work, when parliaments are a genuine forum in which ideas and policies – and leaders – are tried and tested.

In Canada’s legislatures, leaders stand alone. They can tolerate no dissident voices within the caucus, no views and ambitions jockeying for influence, no fresh ideas bubbling up inside. A Canadian political party today is little more than a leader flanked by a bagman, a spin-doctor, and a poll-taker; everyone else is just saying aye and pounding signs. And party leaders have little but their leadership. Rein that in, expect a little give-and-take, and they look weak. They risk become nobodies like everyone else. Coalitions, of course, are by definition a sharing of leadership, a limitation on one leader’s power. No wonder our party leaders dread them: who knows where that might lead?

The public’s doubts, too, are grounded in a hard-eyed view of parliament. As long as our parties are so blindly leader-driven, there are simply too few strong voices there for our legislatures to be serious forums for negotiation. And if parliament will not decide, then elections may not offer much, but to many Canadians they seem like all we have. No wonder we resist delegating the power to make and unmake governments to MPs who have refused such responsibility for ninety years.

Effective coalitions are the product of effective parliaments. Canadians are likely to suspect the one until we experience the other. Backbenchers reasserting their authority might take us in that direction, but don’t look to the party leaders. Power corrupts, as they say, and absolute power is even better.

©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2011

(first published in Canada's History, October/November 2011)

When we went cruising the mighty Saguenay fiord in Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park last summer, it did not occur to me that this may be a national park for the future. In fact, if J.B. Harkin, “father of Canada’s national parks,” came back in spirit to see it, he might not recognize it as a national park at all.

The ‘park” at Saguenay-St. Lawrence is entirely under water, for one thing, and it focuses on preserving that unique marine environment, whereas the original national parks were mostly mountain landscapes that Parks Canada had improved with new roads, big hotels, and golf courses to attract and entertain the tourists. Also, Harkin was an Ottawa man to his fingertips, whereas Parks Canada runs Saguenay-St. Lawrence National Park in partnership with Parcs Québec.

But in the end Bernard Harkin might approve of parks like this one. As a park dedicated to marine conservation, Saguenay-St. Lawrence suggests future pathways for national parks. But in the centenary year of Parks Canada, it still follows a roadmap for parks that the pioneers of our national parks helped to draw in the early twentieth century.

Like many official centennials, Parks Canada’s hundredth birthday seems slightly invented. After all, Banff National Park, created in 1885, celebrated its 125th anniversary last year. But 1911 matters too. That was the year a scattering of national parks, mostly in the Rockies, was entrusted to the Dominion Parks Branch (Parks Canada today), the world’s first agency devoted to managing an entire national parks system as a national asset. National parks were not uniquely Canadian even then. Yosemite and Yellowstone both preceded Banff, and two American parks histories proudly call national parks An American Idea and America’s Best Idea. But the idea of a central agency running a nation-wide network of protected places … well, Parks Canada is five years older than its American counterpart.

Bernard Harkin became the first head of the parks service at its birth in 1911 and he ran it until 1936. A Liberal patronage appointee, he survived the defeat of Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberal government just weeks after it had appointed him. Later, in 1930, he thwarted Calgary Power’s ambitions to build a power dam right in Banff National Park -- only to see the company’s owner, R. B. Bennett, become prime minister that same year. Harkin survived that too.

In its early years, the parks service might have welcomed the dam-builders. In 1885, John A. Macdonald had promised that Banff National Park would recoup its costs many times over: in his day, and in the early years of the parks, roads and recreational facilities were more important than wilderness. Parks were a national resource to be exploited like forests, wheat fields, or mineral deposits. At first Parks Canada did not oppose logging or mining in parks, and its wardens were paid to trap wolves and other predators. Some people were hardly treated better; First Nations and early settlers were driven heartlessly from their old homes in new parks.

But in 1930 the new National Parks Act declared that parks were “dedicated to the people of Canada” and must be preserved “unimpaired for future generations.” A conservationist ethos was being born in the parks service. Preservation of landscapes and animals began to rival the amusement of visitors as the goal of national parks. Harkin said at the end of his life that while a system of national parks had been successfully built, “the battle to keep them inviolate is never won.” His biographer concludes that Bernard Harkin was not just a dedicated bureaucrat; he was a great man.

The second transformative figure in Canadian parks history might just be a politician, Jean Chrétien in fact. Harkin imagined national parks in every part of Canada, but when Chrétien became Parks Canada’s minister in 1968, the parks network was hardly larger than it had been in the 1930s. Between 1968 and 1972 came eleven new parks, including the first north of 60 and the first national parks in Quebec – one of them, La Mauricie, adjoining Chrétien’s own constituency. Parks Canada was starting to deliver on its promise to preserve examples of ecological zones and heritage places in every part of Canada and for all Canadians. At the same time, the service expanded the idea of what a national park could be. Historic parks, marine parks, heritage rivers, and historic canals became a growing part of its repertoire.

The world is still drawn to Canada by its mountains, its wildlife, and its wildernesses, of course. The very image of the wild that any Canadian holds dear probably comes from an image of one of the national parks. But in some of today’s parks, like the vast and magnificent ones in the northern territories, annual visitors may total a few dozen rather than hundreds of thousands. Canadians now grasp that the national parks we may never visit are as precious to us as the ones we do. We trust those wild, untraveled landscapes are there forever, not just for us. As such, they live even more strongly in the national psyche.

Today national parks protect places that are hardly landscapes at all and may never be tourist lures. Parks Canada has been considering a proposal for a marine conservation area that would protect the seabed of Lancaster Sound, the great eastern gateway to the Northwest Passage. Such plans no longer exclude local expertise and local partnerships; Lancaster Sound would be managed in partnership with the Inuit of Nunavut, as Saguenay-St. Lawrence is with Parcs Québec. Lancaster Sound’s preservation is still not certain; some parts of the federal government want to do seabed seismic testing first, just in case there’s oil down there. As Harkin said a lifetime ago, the battle goes on forever.

They say the great Canadian question is “Where is here?” and there is no better place to ponder our place in the landscape than in a protected park. I felt that way last summer when we visited Saguenay-St. Lawrence, loafing along on a cruise boat out of Tadoussac, Qc. (when no doubt we should have been kayaking!) The soaring cliffs above the deep, cold, whale-friendly waters are everything we expect in a national park: beauty, grandeur, and the preservation of wildlife and ecology. And little else: in this park the roads, the hotels, and restaurants, even the tour boats, all operate from outside a park that truly is focused on preservation more than recreation.

I hope that was a glimpse of the future for our national parks.

©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2011

(first published in Canada's History, December 2011/January 2012)

Late one night in 1868, someone put a bullet into D’Arcy McGee’s head on Sparks Street in Ottawa, steps from the House of Commons where he had just finished a rousing speech. In no time at all, Patrick James Whelan, an Irish Catholic tailor, was arrested, sentenced, and sent to the gallows. “They got to find me guilty yet,” said Whelan defiantly.

McGee’s murder was the new nation’s first political assassination. But was “Jim” Whelan the first of Canada’s wrongly convicted? Most of what I had always heard about his trial suggested he was. The witnesses were said to be liars. The evidence against him was circumstantial at best. McGee’s friend the prime minister came and sat beside the judge on the trial bench. Fierce anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudices ruled, and the defendant’s own lawyer was a prominent Protestant Orangeman. The idea that Whelan was a victim of a show trial and a judicial lynching has always been a big part of the McGee murder story.

Looks like time that story got a makeover.

David A. Wilson, a Toronto professor of Celtic Studies, has just completed a ten-year project to write the life of D’Arcy McGee, “the greatest Irishman in Canadian history,” and his two-volume life has been called “one of the great historical biographies of our time.” This fall Wilson wrapped up his story with what must be the authoritative account of the murder and the trial.

Whelan? Well, Whelan does not come out so well.

McGee’s great campaigns in his last years were for confederation and against Fenianism. He promised his Irish-Canadian compatriots that peaceful progress and confederation would give them a full and fair place in Canadian society. But Fenians stood for “physical force” nationalism – a terrorist campaign against British rule in Ireland and British institutions in Canada. McGee insisted nothing could be worse for Irish Canadians.

That fight made McGee unpopular among some of his own constituency and eroded his political capital; he had a hard time getting elected in the first election after confederation. For a long time his stand put him on the wrong side of history too. Irish fighters against the British oppressor have often had a glow of romance cast over them, with all those rousing songs about the wearing of the green. Legends of the “wild geese” and the Easter martyrs helped sell the Fenians and even their heirs in the IRA and the Provos as heroic resisters, not lethal killers. And who says Whelan was a Fenian, went the story, just because he despised the British as a loyal Irishman should?

“He was deep in those circles,” David Wilson told me recently. Wilson demolishes Whelan’s claim that he was a loyal subject of Queen Victoria, leaving little doubt that Whelan was intimately involved in Canadian networks dedicated to armed violence. Whelan’s brother in Ireland was a convicted Fenian. All his Montreal and Ottawa companions were Fenians too, and he himself had been committed to the cause for years. And the Fenian threat, says Wilson, was not just from American Irish soldiers fresh from the American Civil War, for domestic Canadian Fenianism was no comic-opera farce. “Fenianism within Canada is a great untold story,” Wilson says, “and there is a goldmine of information on it.” Indeed, he’s planning his next book on that subject.

What about the murder trial of Patrick James Whelan? “I loved writing that part,” says Wilson. “If this witness was lying, what does that say about this other witness’s evidence? It was like three-dimensional chess.” Wilson concludes it was “a hard-fought trial,” well short of today’s courtroom standards, but not the bigoted railroading that legend has made it to be. Whelan got a vigorous and professional defence, and at the time no one found it odd that when a prime minister visited a courtroom, he was given a place of honour. One of Whelan’s defenders considered John A Macdonald’s presence a moderating influence.

Clearly there was dubious testimony from both sides, but the evidence of Whelan and his friends in Montreal and Ottawa stalking McGee, guns barely concealed, is compelling. Then there’s the pistol and the bullet.

Wilson explores in fascinating detail modern forensic studies of the bullet that killed McGee and the pistol found on Whelan. The bullet is a good match for the gun, the gun had been freshly fired, Whelan had the gun, and …. It’s not final or ironclad, but Wilson makes clear that Whelan had the weapon, the motive, the means, and the opportunity. If he was not the assassin, he must have been standing right beside him. The case for Whelan’s innocence seems as dead as D’Arcy McGee.

Wilson compares McGee to Canadian Sikhs and Muslims of recent times who, sometimes at the risk of their lives, have stood up for tolerance and legal political action against extremist tendencies in their own communities. In recent years, Ireland seems finally to have rejected decisively the cult of political violence associated with the Fenians and the IRA. And it seems fair to conclude that when Canada executed Patrick James Whelan early in 1869, no innocent man went to the gallows. Case closed.

D’Arcy McGee: The Extreme Moderate 1857-1868, the second volume of David A. Wilson’s biography, was published by McGill Queen’s Press in the fall of 2011.

©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2011

(first published in Canada's History, April/May 2012)

We are getting to take it for granted. That our favourite entertainers include K’naan and Sean Majumder. That our liveliest writers include M.S. Vassanji and Esi Edugyan. That Nadir Mohamed and Indira Samarasekera are CEOs and university presidents, and Tak Mak and David Suzuki are eminent Canadian scientists. That our journalists can have the last name Hanomansing or that a hockey player named Nasem Kadri will anchor the Leafs’ top line before long.

In history, however, I am not sure we are there yet. Our cities and our public life increasingly come to reflect the extraordinary global diversity that Canada gained in the last few decades. But with some notable exceptions, our prominent Canadian historians continue to have names like… well, like Moore, not that there’s anything wrong with that. That raises a nervous question. As we become this gloriously diverse nation of many skin tones and soundtracks, what does Canadian history have to offer this new Canada?

Canada’s citizenship minister, Jason Kenney, raised this concern in another way in December 2011 when he declared that women who refuse to remove the face-covering niqab at citizenship ceremonies would be denied citizenship. Taking the oath “openly,” Kenney declared, “goes to the heart of our values.” Canada has a dress code, he seemed to be saying, one drawn from traditions developed down through our history. But many commentators responded that the true Canadian value was tolerance of difference, not imposed conformity. Is there room for an accommodation between the histories already here and ones newly introduced?

This issue ought to be the great challenge for Canadian history, now that so many Canadians have origins that seem remote from Canada’s history texts. When our daily Canadian experience integrates bits of Chile, Belarus, Somalia, and Afghanistan, can we Canadianists claim continued relevance for the Last Spike, or the battle of Queenston Heights, or the fate of the Newfoundland outports?

In fact we should. At bottom, people either grasp history as intrinsically interesting or they don’t – no passport required. Canadians can find fascination in the history of Ming China or ancient Greece without expecting to become Chinese or Greek.

Why shouldn’t a kid born somewhere else be caught up by the dramas of how people built this new society on the northern half of North America? Or, how the indigenous people dealt with five centuries of immigrants.

If we do believe Canadian history is relevant to Canadian citizenship, there’s reason for optimism. Many new Canadians have come here from horrific oppression elsewhere. Why should they not be gripped by the examples in Canada’s long history of how to build democracy, assert individual rights, and celebrate our differences. (Not without its exceptions, I grant!)

When the late Czech-born writer Josef Skvorecky said, “There is beauty everywhere on earth, but there is more beauty in those places where one feels that sense of ease which comes from no longer having to put off one’s dreams,” he was saluting Canadian freedoms. If our next great Canadian constitutional historian had roots in Burma or Chile or Chechnya, it would make perfect sense.

Canada has always been able to integrate large numbers of people who seem “foreign.” John Ralston Saul’s striking image, “a Métis society,” in his 2008 bestseller A Fair Country evoked and saluted a nation that has always been mixed, and the better for it.

In 1910 Eastern European immigrants wrapped in babushkas seemed as threatening as Islamic women in burkas do today; some Canadians shouted about the threat of a “mongrel Canada.”

But Stephen Leacock counseled calm. “Leave them alone and pretty soon the Ukrainians will think they won the battle of Trafalgar,” he wrote. He might have been speaking of John Diefenbaker, whose German heritage never hindered his appreciation of the British contribution to Canada. The history of Canada is the history of integrating strangers.

I recently wrote a history of the world for kids, and it was hardly to be about Canada at all. But I read a few others of the genre, notably Ernst Gombrich’s Little History of the World. It is charming, lively, optimistic – and it struck me as astonishingly Eurocentric. Was it my Canadian vantage point that got me thinking of all the peoples and places of the world in the last 50,000 years – and of ending the story in our Canadian cities, where the great world now seems to be spinning together?

Now that’s a Canadian history of the world, it occurred to me. If we harness all the talents and the perspectives available in Canada today, we should be able to teach it to anyone.

Christopher Moore comments in every issue of Canada’s History. His book From Then To Now: A Short History of the World, published by Tundra Books in 2011, won the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature.

©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2012

(first published in Canada's History, June/July 2012)

In November 1953, at three in the morning, Queen Elizabeth’s plane made a brief stop at Gander, Nfld. Despite the hour, a crowd gathered to sing ‘For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” Her Majesty came out in the cold and the dark to thank them. Brief as it was, that was the first of Elizabeth II’s royal visits to Canada.

Sixty years after her accession to the throne, the queen’s Canadian travels make an extraordinary record. She began touring Canada – as Queen of Canada -- before most of today’s Canadians were born. Since that moment in Gander, she has been back thirty more times, on visits as brief as that refueling stop, as extended as 1959’s seven-week exploration of every province and territory – during which she discovered she was pregnant with Prince Andrew.

Have you been to Bonavista, Fort McMurray, Kindersley, the Khutzeymateen valley, North Bay, Norway House, Rankin Inlet, Rivière du Loup, Shediac, Summerside, Sydney, and Yellowknife? She has. And many more Canadian places besides. Has anyone in the world ever maintained such a relentless touring schedule for six decades, never out of the glare of adulation? Who else has ever married such strict adherence to form with such disarming grace?

Queen Elizabeth has been in Canada to open two parliaments, two Commonwealth games, two Commonwealth conferences, the St Lawrence Seaway, an Olympic Games, and uncounted highways, plaques, memorials, and public places. Endless trails of cut ribbons. Curtseys and proclamations. Perhaps a million waves of the royal right arm. Thousands of Canadians have spoken to Elizabeth II, saluted her, handed her flowers. Hundreds of thousands more have at least seen her.

I’m not one of them. I’ve never seen Queen Elizabeth – and I’ve been here pretty much all those sixty years. I’m like most Canadians in that. Even thirty royal visits amounts to only a few whirlwind days every few years.

Yet, without having made any particular effort, I seem to have met most of our recent governors general, and the lieutenant governors of several provinces, too. Despite the queen’s heroic travels, those are our real, regular, everyday representatives of state. At public celebrations, at prize-givings, at all kinds of festivities deserving of official patronage, they are the ones who are likely to be there, woven deep into the fabric of the country.

Okay, maybe I’m a little bit complicit in not having seen the queen. When I was young, we lived not far from Granville Street in Vancouver, the usual route of royal motorcades from the airport. A few days before a royal visit, my mother would start thinking aloud about going up to watch.

“No,” we would protest. “Come on! Why?”

My mother, a contemporary of the queen, became a devoted west-coast Canadian upon her immigration here, but she never lost those home ties. For her, a royal tour did something to maintain the link. For her sons, not so much. We put aside Her Englishness as surely and speedily as we did short pants and British accents. If someone mentioned the Queen’s televised Christmas message, we would plug our noses and parody her diction: “Moi husband and oi.” It has always seemed natural to me that Canadian links with the British monarchy would fade. The queen, I assume, is nice… but she’s foreign.

The crown, however, the crown is not foreign. That prorogation crisis of 2009, when the prime minister sent parliament home? That was “crown prerogative” – done by the prime minister, but an application of the powers of the Canadian crown. The crown prosecutes, the crown commands, the crown assents and appoints. Constitutional monarchy is not just motorcades in the sunshine.

That is one lesson emphasized in a new book, The Evolving Canadian Crown, edited by Jennifer Smith and Michael Jackson and a project of Friends of the Canadian Crown, a monarchist lobby. Some of its effusions about the “Maple Crown” feel like something sweet and sticky over your ears. But its essays do engage with a profound challenge at the heart of the Canadian monarchy. Namely: the work of the Canadian crown is done by the governor general, but a governor general deferring to a mostly absent monarch – and under the thumb of the politicians too -- can never hold the independent prestige and authority a true head of state should wield.

Senator and former secretary of state Serge Joyal – a monarchist to his fingertips – observes how easily governors general are undermined by jealous politicians eager for the spotlight. “For more than forty years, all Canadian prime ministers have undermined the legitimacy and authority of the crown,” he complains. Weakening the crown in Canada, he writes, has mostly concentrated yet more power in the hands of the prime minister. Yet Joyal is equally concerned about governors general who want to raise the profile of the office: they too “decrease the symbolic value of the crown.”

What to do? The solution, say several essayists in this collection, is more monarchy: more royal visits and royal symbols, more direct assertion of the monarch’s authority, more effort to make us all appreciate royalty. The Friends of the Canadian Crown want to see the restoration of a dynamic Canadian monarchy. They hope the current governor general and prime minister will be more deferential to the queen than their predecessors. (“I’m not a strong monarchist, I’m really not,” Stephen Harper said – but that was before he was prime minister.) With frequent travel and fresh new ceremonies, they hope, the “liturgical authority” of the monarch will be affirmed.

For Tom Freda, who speaks for Citizens for a Canadian Republic, a republican lobby, the solution is different. “The queen as queen in right of Canada – that is a Canadian fabrication,” he says. “There should not be an individual person built into our constitutional structure. The Canadian people should fill that role. Indeed, that is the reality. We are for all practical purposes a parliamentary republic. The queen is a symbol, and we think it is time to redefine that symbol.”

To confirm our governor general as Canadian head of state, Freda says, “the important debate is how to choose. Either parliament or some other body must become the electoral college that selects the head of state, or else there must be a popularly elected head of state.”

Could that be done? Well, a simple constitutional amendment would suffice, but the consent of Parliament and every province would be required. That’s a high threshold, and it should be; this is an important issue. Change can only happen if Canadians want it. If we show we want it, it will.

Is Freda dismayed by this year’s diamond jubilee and its celebration of Canadian monarchy? Not at all, he says. “Her sixty years is a memorable feat, worth commemorating…. The queen and her jubilee will be celebrated all around the world this year, including by many countries that do not have the queen as their monarch.”

Indeed, he suggests, even triumphal royal tours and celebrations ultimately strengthen the republican idea in Canada. “Royal visits – they provoke thought. When the queen is here, the monarchy is front and centre, not out of sight, out of mind. And when Canadians think about the monarchy, they think that the future of the monarchy should be discussed.”

After sixty years of bringing the monarchy to Canadians, Queen Elizabeth is not touring Canada this summer. She is staying in Britain for the jubilee. Instead, our future King Charles III will visit, to continue that remarkable Canadian history of royal visits.

Will the jubilee year’s spotlight on the monarchy, past, present, and future, inspire that serious conversation Canadians need to have? In their own ways, both the restorationist Friends of the Canadian Monarchy and the republican Citizens for a Canadian Republic are contributing to it. Surely it is time.

Christopher Moore comments in every issue.

Jennifer Smith and D. Michael Jackson, eds., The Evolving Canadian Crown, was published in 2012 by McGill-Queen’s University Press.

©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2012

(first published in Canada's History, August/September 2012)

Can there be history in home movies? Marjorie Doyle, the St. John’s writer and broadcaster, knows there is. She was young when her father died in 1956, and she cannot remember him. But she has his home movies. There she sees baby Marjorie skip and laugh for the father who holds the camera, who loves her.

The man behind that camera truly made film history, not just for his little girl. During the 1930s, Kodak introduced 8 and 16 mm cameras and simple-to-use colour film. That pretty much created the home movie, and Gerald S. Doyle was in at the start. In 1936, with a camera and film he bought while visiting New York City, he began documenting his life and his work. His life’s work was Newfoundland, its outports in particular.

Doyle was a businessman in St. John’s. He held distribution agencies for scores of familiar commercial products: Red Rose tea, Aspirin, Life Savers, Vick’s Vapo-Rub, patent medicines from Dodd’s and Chase’s and Templeton’s. He sold those products in the outports that dotted the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, and that is where he took his camera: to Lewisporte, Francois, Englee, Fogo, St. Anthony, King’s Cove and scores of other communities, many of which no longer exist.

Even to Newfoundlanders, those outports are now a lost world. The resettlement programs of the 1950s and 1960s; the collapse of the fishery; the coming of roads and telephones – outport culture could not survive these changes. There used to be townie culture and bay culture in Newfoundland. Today it’s mostly townies remembering the baymen.

But from the 1920s, when outport culture still thrived, Gerald S. Doyle made annual commercial tours of the outports in his company’s motor yacht Miss Newfoundland. Until his death in 1956 he took his camera along. His widow saved those reels of film, and last year Marjorie Doyle and her filmmaker brother John W. Doyle made them into a film: Regarding Our Father: The Life and Times of Gerald S. Doyle. They showed it at a St. John’s film festival last fall. Marjorie Doyle told me recently, “That was overwhelming. People’s jaws just dropped as they looked at it. People came out with tears in their eyes: ‘That was my father.’ ‘My grandmother was there.’”

I have no outport connection myself, but I too found Gerald S. Doyle’s bright Kodachrome images stunning. I probably imagined outport people as beyond the reach of such things as cameras: isolated, unchanging, self-sufficient, gone. If I tried to visualize them, they would have been clothed in homemade garments, making their own culture for themselves.

Doyle’s camera, a window into outport life just before it vanished, demolishes such preconceptions. The kids and adults who greet Miss Newfoundland at the wharves are well dressed, the women rather stylish, the young girls pretty in summer frocks, their hair neatly curled for the big day. And the logos! Who imagines outport buildings covered with Coca-Cola signs and ads for Sunlight soap and Camay?

Well, of course they were. That was Doyle’s business, delivering the world’s products to precisely these people and places. By land, Newfoundland’s outports were utterly cut off -- but this was a seagoing economy. In the film, boats are everywhere, handled by people supremely at ease in them. “At King’s Cove,” Marjorie Doyle told me, “where my father came from and where I now spend six months a year, you could buy anything when it was thriving, because ships came in.” Now you can drive to King’s Cove, “but you can’t buy anything. It had way more connections to the world then.”

For sure Gerald S. Doyle’s films emphasize special summertime moments. Everyone smiles, and sunlight glints on cobalt-blue waters where no fog intrudes. But the outports he filmed were not poor gray places. When the outport fishing economy worked, people could afford to buy those products he sold. Newfoundland’s historians know this economic system in theory – but I suspect few who see “Regarding Our Father” will write about outport history in quite the same way afterwards.

Gerald S. Doyle’s services to Newfoundland – “his country Newfoundland,” as Marjorie Doyle emphasizes – went beyond his home movies. From 1927 he published his own compilations of Newfoundland songs and stories. The free booklets were an advertising vehicle, but they also helped create and preserve the canon of Newfoundland music. For years, his radio program and his free newspaper reported outport news to outport listeners and readers. Gerald S. Doyle was one of the founders of modern Newfoundland culture.

His films and the documentary his children have from them may yet become Doyle’s greatest legacy. Historians are just beginning to contemplate the YouTube effect, the realization that historians of the 21st century will have film of everything, and it will surely shape their histories of who we were and how we looked.

For the 1930s, however, there is no similar expectation of getting film of everywhere and everything, perhaps least of all for outport Newfoundland. Over fifty years after his death, Gerald S. Doyle, with the help of the children he loved, has made the place -- the country -- that he loved look fresh and new. That’s a piece of film history few will be able to match.

What other home movies of 1930s Canada await rediscovery?

Regarding Our Father: The Life and Times of Gerald S. Doyle” by John W. Doyle and Marjorie Doyle can be bought most anywhere in Newfoundland. For the rest of us, takes online orders.

Christopher Moore comments in every issue of Canada’s History.

For more information on Christopher Moore please explore his web site